Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Reading Aloud

The Princess and Her Panther

Last week, I was work­ing on my WIP, a sprawl­ing mess of a nov­el. I’d hit a rough patch and I set myself the assign­ment to just type away for ten minutes—ten min­utes of non­stop typ­ing just to Get Words Down—I wouldn’t let my fin­gers stop. I sim­ply need­ed some words to work with, I told myself. 

I do not usu­al­ly resort to this, but it was not a par­tic­u­lar­ly good writ­ing day. And so I typed and typed—and I knew it was dreck, but at least it was maybe (hope­ful­ly) a start­ing point for this piv­otal scene between two cousins…. Type­type­type­type­type…. And then, my fin­gers typed this line:

Signe was brave, and Riya tried to be.

I stopped typ­ing.

I’d writ­ten 873 words. 865 were lookin’ pret­ty use­less. But these eight…maybe these eight had some­thing I could work with? There was a rhythm to them, a qui­et spark of some sort. Some­thing famil­iar.… Com­fort­ing. They made me smile. I couldn’t quite put my fin­ger on it, but I high­light­ed the line so I wouldn’t lose it, then I con­tin­ued. The words that came after these were bet­ter, eas­i­er. The con­flict unknot­ted itself just a bit and I could begin the work with­in it.

This after­noon, I fig­ured out what was so famil­iar about the line. It’s basi­cal­ly a pla­gia­rized line from a favorite pic­ture book of mine: The Princess and Her Pan­ther by Wendy Orr, Illus­trat­ed by Lau­ren Stringer.

I love every­thing about this book.  I love the red “O” on the very first page, which begin “One after­noon…”.  I love the sto­ry told in the pic­tures. I love the imag­i­na­tions of the Princess and her Panther—sisters, the old­er one in charge, the younger fol­low­ing the nar­ra­tive that is set.

In the back­yard, the princess and her pan­ther cross the desert sand (sand­box), drink from the waters of wide blue lake (wad­ing pool), and pitch a red silk tent (red blan­ket over a tree branch.) Dar­ling Daugh­ter loved the tent when she was the panther’s age.

Through­out there is this won­der­ful per­fect refrain: The princess was brave, and the pan­ther tried to be. Wa-la! The source of my line!

This book is a won­der­ful read-a-loud—every word is pitch-per­fect. And the illustrations…well. The illus­tra­tions make us feel the con­fi­dence of the princess, the ner­vous­ness of the pan­ther. And we see when the princess los­es a lit­tle of her confidence—it’s the too-whit-too-whoo­ing and screechy hoo-hoo­ing that does it.

Then comes the vari­a­tion on the per­fect line, itself per­fect: The princess tried to be brave, and the pan­ther tried to try.

And then they both regain their brav­ery—the princess was brave, and the pan­ther was too—and togeth­er they shout “Enough is enough!” van­quish­ing the imag­ined wolf, mon­ster, witch, and slith­ery snakes. The sis­ters go back to their red silk tent, “and the full moon smiled as it shone its soft light on two sis­ters sleep­ing…”

It’s an immense­ly sat­is­fy­ing book—a pic­ture book extra­or­di­naire as both the pic­tures and the words are nec­es­sary for the full effect. The sto­ry arc is per­fect and that line—my favorite line!—put things right some­how for this frus­trat­ed writer. Just the sound of the words strung togeth­er. It’s exact­ly what my book need­ed this week.

I haven’t read The Princess and the Pan­ther in sto­ry­time for quite some time—it used to be in reg­u­lar rota­tion and received rave reviews, by which I mean my young sto­ry time friends sat rapt. I don’t know how it got parked on the book­shelves for so long. But I’ve pulled it off the shelf now and it’ll be head­lin­ing the very next sto­ry­time I do.

I’m grate­ful I still read to kids regularly—it helps this writer’s writ­ing. Good pic­ture books are like poetry—the lan­guage seeps in.

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The BIG Umbrella

I am extra­or­di­nar­i­ly lucky in that I have a group of wee ones who join me for sto­ry­time most weeks. They’re little—age three and under, with sev­er­al babies in the mix—so we don’t tell long sto­ries or read great doorstop­per books. But with pic­ture books, some of the best ones are pret­ty spare in terms of words.

I have a new favorite—new to the world, even—that I want to share wide­ly. The BIG Umbrel­la writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Amy June Bates, co-writ­ten with Juniper Bates. (A moth­er-daugh­ter pair, the daugh­ter being quite young, which is its own love­li­ness.) This book is an anti­dote for our ugly, con­tentious times. It is a sto­ry of inclu­sion and gladness—an “All are wel­come, please come!” invi­ta­tion leaps off its pages.

By the front door…

            there is an umbrel­la.

It is BIG.

It is a big friend­ly umbrel­la.

There’s a page turn with each of those lines—the bet­ter to show off the won­der­ful art. The bright red umbrel­la catch­es even the youngest’s eyes.

The umbrel­la fea­tures a smil­ing face. The eyes are smil­ing, too. I think it’s the first anthro­po­mor­phic umbrel­la I’ve seen, now that I think about it. The umbrel­la is being tak­en out and about by a child in a yel­low rain slick­er. We are told—and see—that this big friend­ly umbrel­la likes to help, likes to spread its arms wide, “lives” to shel­ter those who need shel­ter.

In the next sev­er­al page turns, the big umbrel­la takes in one friend after another—a blue jack­et­ed child first…then a tutu-clad dancer…and a red sneak­ered sports star.

And that is only the begin­ning of who the big red umbrel­la shel­ters. We learn it can take in the tallest among us (giant bird feet appear and are cut-off at the top of the page before we’re to the knee) as well as the hairi­est (a benev­o­lent hairy beast.) It takes in those clad in plaid and those with four legs. The umbrel­la just keeps get­ting big­ger as they all crowd under it togeth­er.

Towards the end of the book there is a gen­tle reminder that although some wor­ry there won’t be enough room, there always is.

I almost cried when I read it. But I was saved by the smiles around the circle—those wee ones got it! They can’t pro­nounce umbrel­la, many of them, but sit­ting in a crowd­ed space on their par­ents’ laps, with their young friends…they got it. There’s always room.

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The Penderwicks

I have a mixed his­to­ry with The Pen­der­wicks books by Jeanne Bird­sall. The first book, The Pen­der­wicks: A Sum­mer Tale Of Four Sis­ters, Two Rab­bits, and a Very Inter­est­ing Boy came out in 2005 when #1 Son was eight and Dar­ling Daugh­ter was three. It won the Nation­al Book Award that year and there was much flur­ry over it.

It’s the sort of book I love—a fam­i­ly sto­ry, gen­tle adven­tures, quo­tid­i­an details—and with a mod­ern set­ting, as opposed to the more dat­ed books that had inspired it like The Melendy Quar­tet, The Mof­fats, and the E. Nes­bit books.

Peo­ple pressed The Pen­der­wicks upon me. “Look at the cov­er!” they said.

It was an adorable cov­er. So we read it.

I must’ve been in a mood or some­thing…. I just didn’t love it. The kids liked it just fine. I was…very crit­i­cal. I won­der now if I was jeal­ous, actu­al­ly. It’s the kind of book I might like to write. 

Fast for­ward six years or so…. I was work­ing toward an MFA in writ­ing for chil­dren and young adults. I had to do a crit­i­cal thesis—a schol­ar­ly work of in-depth analy­sis and crit­i­cism. I decid­ed to write my crit­i­cal the­sis on The Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry Hap­py Fam­i­ly Sto­ry. I looked at the his­to­ry of the genre (the “Hap­py Fam­i­ly Sto­ry” was a rec­og­nized genre at one time) and many of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry exam­ples, which were all on my shelves as they are beloved works I’d read as a child and to my chil­dren.

After ana­lyz­ing these old­er books I loved so much, I pro­posed cer­tain changes—tweaks, really—that might be need­ed to make the genre appeal to twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry kid read­ers. In that process, I looked at The Pen­der­wicks again. Was it a good mod­el of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry hap­py fam­i­ly sto­ry I was propos­ing? Two more books had come out in the series in the mean­time. I read those, too, stub­born­ly hold­ing to my most­ly crab­by stance. Of course these books had their charms, but I picked apart places where I thought they’d fall­en short. I learned a lot doing this. I’d be grate­ful to Ms. Bird­sall if this was all I got from her books.

Mean­while, peo­ple con­tin­ued to press the Pen­der­wicks books upon me. My writ­ing teachers…librarians and book­sellers who know me well…my agent…my agent’s adorable daugh­ter…. “Why don’t you love the Pen­der­wicks?” they’d say. I start­ed to feel like a heel. And I had to admit it didn’t make sense. (This is when I formed the jeal­ousy hypoth­e­sis.)

Still, I didn’t pick them up again until just recent­ly. I opened the first book to look at how Bird­sall uses point of view since I was stuck on a POV prob­lem in my own novel…and this time, for what­ev­er rea­son, I fell into the book. I asked my nieces who live just around the cor­ner to read it with me. Their moth­er had just ordered the book for them—it being exact­ly the sort of book they would love. (It’s genet­ic, this love of hap­py fam­i­ly sto­ries.) And they did love that first Pen­der­wicks book—we read the first chap­ters togeth­er this sum­mer and they fin­ished on their own, unable to wait for me.

Last week, while my sis­ter and broth­er-in-law were out, I had a chance to do one of my favorite things: sit on the floor in the hall­way between my nieces’ bed­rooms and read them to sleep. Only they couldn’t go to sleep. We are now on the sec­ond book in the series, The Pen­der­wicks on Gar­dam Street, and it was entire­ly too absorb­ing to put any­one to sleep. I even­tu­al­ly had to say, “It’s late. We real­ly need to be done for now….”

Today after school they came over for anoth­er cou­ple of chap­ters. Who knows how these things hap­pen, but I’m in love with the Pen­der­wicks at last! The fifth book came out this fall. We’re plan­ning on read­ing the whole series togeth­er.

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The Stuff of Stars

I’ve been anx­ious­ly await­ing the book birth of The Stuff of Stars by Mar­i­on Dane Bauer, illus­trat­ed by Ekua Holmes. I heard the text a year ago and for­got to breathe while the author read it out loud. And then I heard who the illus­tra­tor was. Let’s just say, what a pair­ing!

When I opened my much antic­i­pat­ed copy—after oohing and aaahing over the cover—and read the first page, I heard cel­lo. A deep deep cel­lo note, under the words.

In the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark…. 

As I con­tin­ued to read, I con­tin­ued to hear cel­lo music—almost a synes­the­sia kind of expe­ri­ence, though thor­ough­ly explained, I sup­pose, by my intense love of cel­lo.

And so, when it came time to read it to an audience—storytime in wor­ship at church—I con­tact­ed a won­der­ful cel­list in our midst and asked if she was the sort of per­son who liked to impro­vise, draw­ing pic­tures with her cel­lo, etc. She is that sort of per­son, luck­i­ly enough. I emailed her the text and she emailed back her excite­ment.  I said, “Wait ‘til you see the art….” (She gasped when she saw the art.)

I gave her com­plete artis­tic free­dom. We agreed to meet before church to run through it a cou­ple of times. I sat so she could see the pic­tures as I read. We ran through it twice—different both times. Won­der­ful both times. We did it anoth­er two times in each of our church’s services—different those times, too, and won­der­ful in all new ways because the kids were lis­ten­ing.

She’s an extreme­ly tal­ent­ed musi­cian work­ing on a degree in composition—obviously not every­one could do this. But it was just glo­ri­ous, my friends.

She played how “the cloud of gas unfold­ed, unfurled, zigged, zagged, stretched, col­lid­ed, expand­ed…expand­edexpand­ed….” My heart near­ly burst when she played that expan­sion. The chil­dren sat rapt, their eyes wide at the  col­laged mar­bled papers illus­trat­ing the first moments of our cos­mos.

The cel­lo illus­trat­ed for our ears how the star­ry stuff turned into “mito­chon­dria, jel­ly­fish, spi­ders…” It helped us hear the ferns and sharks, daisies and gal­lop­ing hors­es. The gal­lop­ing hors­es were fan­tas­tic. 

When the dark refrain returned…

…one day…

in the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark… 

…so did that low low note on the cel­lo. The chil­dren noticed. Their heads turned to look at the cello…and then back at the mar­bled dark­ness in the book.

It was pow­er­ful.

The Stuff of Stars is pow­er­ful with­out cel­lo music, I assure you. I’ve since read it to young and old alike with­out accom­pa­ni­ment, and it’s a delightful—I will even say holy—expe­ri­ence every time. If you’ve not seen this book, you must! Pick up a few copies—it makes a won­der­ful new baby or birth­day gift;  for the sto­ry of the birth of the cos­mos moves to the birth of our planet…and then to the birth of the indi­vid­ual child “spe­cial as Love.”

We need more books like this one—books that hold togeth­er won­der, sci­ence, awe, love, and our place in nature along­side the inevitable ten­sions of life. We need gor­geous books for chil­dren. Too much of the world is ugly right now. Chil­dren need beau­ty, sto­ries, and art. They need to hear:

You

   and me

      lov­ing you.

          All of us

              The stuff of stars.

 

For fur­ther read­ing, I high­ly rec­om­mend the fol­low­ing:

Mar­i­on Dane Bauer inter­views her illus­tra­tor, Ekua Holmes.

The writ­ing process for The Stuff of Stars.

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Story Time for All

A cou­ple of weeks ago, Dar­ling Daugh­ter and I made our way to the Farm­ers Mar­ket. I’ve been recov­er­ing from a bit of surgery, and truth be told, I wasn’t feel­ing great that morn­ing, but need­ed to get out and about. We wan­dered the stalls, got our veg­gies, our goat cheese, our sunflowers…then some cof­fee and lemon­ade and car­damom donuts so as to sit down and rest a bit. And then…

Sto­ry­time! STO­RY-time!” A voice sang out to the crowd.

As any read­er of this col­umn knows, I’m a huge fan of sto­ry time. Give me a kid or two and a stack of books and I will read and sing and play hap­pi­ly for as long as they will. Tru­ly, sto­ry time gives me Great Joy. I’m usu­al­ly the sto­ry­teller or sto­ryread­er, though. Too sel­dom do I attend sto­ry times now that my chil­dren are fair­ly grown.

I rec­og­nized the voice imme­di­ate­ly. It belonged to a local actor here in the Twin Cities—he’s part of the Guthrie com­pa­ny as well as being a reg­u­lar at sev­er­al oth­er the­aters. Most recent­ly he played the Lorax at the Children’s The­ater Com­pa­ny in Min­neapo­lis and the Old Globe in San Diego. His name: H. Adam Har­ris. And does he ever have a voice!

When I saw this tal­ent­ed man do sto­ry time at the farmer’s mar­ket last sum­mer I was also thrilled and car­ried away by the experience—I wrote about it for Red Read­ing Boots, in fact. This year, he was every bit as wonderful—and he read some new-to-me books I loved and have since added to my sto­ry time stack. But it was my per­son­al expe­ri­ence of the sto­ry time this year that was so mean­ing­ful.  

I, a mid­dle-aged moth­er with teen daugh­ter in tow, was not the tar­get audi­ence for this sto­ry time. But I enjoyed it every bit as much as the lit­tlest ones there.  Yes, I loved all the kids gathering…the fam­i­lies set­ting down their bas­kets and bags and sit­u­at­ing their kids on the blue mat and them­selves on the steps…I loved the kids’ laugh­ter, and Mr. Har­ris’ won­der­ful voic­es and expres­sions and enthu­si­asm. It was a beau­ti­ful day, the sto­ries he’d select­ed were ter­rif­ic….

But on that par­tic­u­lar Sat­ur­day, what my tired and recov­er­ing body loved most was sim­ply being read to. I loved the sto­ry time itself. I just melt­ed into the steps and gave myself over to the expe­ri­ence. What a gift it is to be read a sto­ry! Why do we not do this for each oth­er more often? While I think it the most fab­u­lous thing in the world that we read to chil­dren, the only thing more fab­u­lous would be also read­ing to each oth­er as adults.

Dar­ling Daugh­ter sug­gest­ed I bite the bul­let and just get Libro.fm already. I do adore audio­books. But I think it’s not quite the same as some­one read­ing to you live and in per­son. The rela­tion­ship between read­er and lis­ten­er is lost with­out a lit­tle eye con­tact, with­out a well-placed ques­tion or chuck­le. No, I think the thing has some­thing to do with being read to, not the lis­ten­ing itself.

So I com­mend it to you—find some­one to read to. Find some­one to read to you. Sit back and enjoy it.

Sto­ry­time! STO­RY-time!”

 

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Pinkerton & Friends

I had a “Why in the world….?” moment the oth­er day. It was unex­pect­ed and a lit­tle strange and it was this: When I imag­ine pic­ture books that I am writ­ing and/or think­ing about writ­ing, I imag­ine very spe­cif­ic illus­tra­tions. From a very spe­cif­ic illus­tra­tor. Even though I admire the work of many illus­tra­tors. (I admire this one, too, of course.) But always, always, in my first imag­in­ing, I “pic­ture” the illus­tra­tions by Steven Kel­logg.

I love Mr. Kellogg’s work. But I love the work of a lot of illus­tra­tors and would aspire and hope for many (very dif­fer­ent) illus­tra­tors to make art to help tell my sto­ries. I can switch my imag­i­na­tion to oth­er illus­tra­tors if I think about it, but with­out think­ing about it…it’s Steven Kellogg’s art. When this real­iza­tion came to me I pulled some of his books off the shelves in my office with the ques­tion: Why is Kel­logg my default, the first one whose work I imag­ine?

All I can think is that the years 1999–2002 were what I think of as The Pinker­ton Years. You might think it strange that I can pin­point the years, but I know we were less involved with Pinker­ton (and by that I mean not read­ing Pinker­ton sto­ries on a dai­ly basis) by the time Dar­ling Daugh­ter came along late in 2002. Pri­or to that, we could hard­ly leave the house with­out a Pinker­ton sto­ry with us.

These were also the first of the allergy/asthma years—#1 Son was crit­i­cal­ly ill too much of the time, and with his doc­tors we were strug­gling to fig­ure out what was caus­ing such severe reac­tions. The only clear aller­gens were pets, and he came to under­stand first that he could not be around pup­pies or kit­ties, or any­thing else fur­ry and cud­dly and fun. A ter­ri­ble sen­tence, of course, when you are three and wheezy.

So we read a lot of books about pets, and before we read Rib­sy and Because of Winn-Dix­ie we read Pinker­ton sto­ries. A lot of Pinker­ton sto­ries. #1 Son adored Pinker­ton. Pinker­ton, a Great Dane, is pos­si­bly the most hilar­i­ous dog to ever be fea­tured in a book—he is huge and ungain­ly and always get­ting him­self in a fix. His expres­sions, his “knees and elbows,” his giant flop­pi­ness, and his curios­i­ty and giant heart make him quite a char­ac­ter.

Very quick­ly we learned to spot Kel­logg illus­tra­tions from across the library/bookstore, and pret­ty much wher­ev­er there are Kel­logg pic­tures, there are ani­mals. Not just great danes, but boa con­stric­tors, mice, cats, pigs, ducks in a row, hors­es, spaniels….. And wher­ev­er there are ani­mals, there’s a fair amount of chaos—at least in a Kel­logg book. (Arti­cles and inter­views sug­gest he has lived the fun and chaos in a home we could not have entered and lived to breathe—lots of pets!)

The detail in Kellogg’s illus­tra­tions is tremen­dous, the hilar­i­ty apt­ly con­veyed, and the sweet­ness and roller­coast­er high emo­tions of kids and Great Danes alike comes alive on the page. I could read stacks of the books in one sit­ting to my wheez­ing boy. We used them to get through neb­u­liz­er treat­ments, and to “push flu­ids,” and to encour­age rest for a kid all amped up on steroids. They were mag­i­cal and we poured over the illus­tra­tions long after the read­ing of the sto­ry was done. The med­i­cine could go down with­out much fuss as long as Pinker­ton was along.

Those were exhaust­ing, wor­ried years, and all I can think is that I some­how absorbed Steven Kellogg’s art in my sleep-deprived anx­ious state…and it’s now in my bones. Thank you, Mr. Kel­logg, for your sto­ries, your art, and your pres­ence in our family’s life. You are the default in my imag­i­na­tion and I’m grate­ful.

 

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Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection

thomas-200pixOnce upon a time, we had a lit­tle boy who was com­plete­ly enthralled with all things hav­ing to do with trains. When he fell for Thomas the Tank Engine, he fell hard, and he was not yet two. We have an exten­sive col­lec­tion of Thomas and friends (thanks to the grand­par­ents) com­plete with a liv­ing room’s miles worth of track, cor­re­spond­ing sta­tions, bridges, and assort­ed oth­er props. That boy is now in engi­neer­ing school, and I can’t help but think that Thomas and friends (as well as Legos® and blocks etc.) had a hand to play in his education/career choice.

It had been awhile since the trains roamed the liv­ing room for days on end, when my daugh­ter brought her babysit­ting charges over last spring. They could not believe their eyes when they saw our train paraphernalia—I’d not met such Thomas fans in near­ly fif­teen years. The 8×10 oval rug was soon trans­formed into a set for Thomas adven­tures and stories—both those famil­iar from books and shows and those made up on the spot.

I now have sev­er­al young friends in sto­ry­time who love Thomas. Slow­ly I’m remem­ber­ing the names and per­son­al­i­ties of the train cars. It gives me an “in” with these preschool­ers, I think—I speak their lan­guage. I know about cheeky Per­cy and wise Edward. I know that Thomas has the num­ber one on his engine, where­as Edward has a two—although both are blue, it’s a beginner’s mis­take to mix them up. I know that James, the Red Engine, can be a real pain at times—he’s a bit of a snob and a lit­tle too proud of his red paint. I know Annie and Clara­belle are Thomas’ friends (his coach cars, actu­al­ly).

I took the giant Thomas the Tank Engine: The Com­plete Col­lec­tion off my shelves the oth­er day. It instant­ly made me sleepy. We read Thomas sto­ries after lunch, before nap, with a great reg­u­lar­i­ty. They are not ter­ri­bly sophis­ti­cat­ed sto­ries. They tend to be more than a bit preachy. And there’s an aston­ish­ing lev­el of detail about train bits and their work­ings. I was always half asleep by the time we were fin­ished read­ing.

I think of the Thomas sto­ries with the same sort of fond­ness with which I think of Mr. Rogers—gentle, rhyth­mic, sleep-induc­ing, post-lunch won­der­ful­ness. And, my good­ness, do I love the very seri­ous con­ver­sa­tions to be had when dim­pled lit­tle hands hold up the cars and tell me all about the parts and per­son­al­i­ties of each of the trains and trucks and dig­gers. These con­ver­sa­tions don’t make me sleepy at all, though they do make me nos­tal­gic for the days when it took a whole morning’s worth of nego­ti­a­tion to get my boy to move Thomas and his friends so I could vac­u­um. Vac­u­um­ing days were hard and sad days, gen­er­al­ly reclaimed only with an extra sto­ry from The Com­plete Col­lec­tion. And then a nap…for all con­cerned.

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Kingfisher Treasuries

unknown-3There was a time—although it seems like it’s becom­ing a tiny dot in the rearview mirror—in which one birth­day child or the oth­er received the birth­day-appro­pri­ate book in the King­fish­er Trea­sury series of Sto­ries for Five/Six/Seven/Eight Year Olds. Those beloved paper­backs reside on my office shelves now, but it was not so long ago that they were opened on the appro­pri­ate birth­day to big smiles—there was some­thing sort of mile­stone-like about receiv­ing them. Near as I can tell from the inter­webs, we’re only miss­ing Sto­ries for Four Year Olds—I just might have to com­plete our col­lec­tion, because I’ve pret­ty well lost myself this morn­ing while look­ing at these books again.

They are hum­ble paperbacks—I don’t believe they were ever pub­lished as hard­backs, let alone with gild­ed pages and embossed cov­ers. But the sto­ries between the col­or­ful cov­ers are of that cal­iber, cer­tain­ly. Cho­sen by Edward and Nan­cy Blishen, these sto­ries are from the likes of Rud­yard Kipling, Bev­er­ly Cleary, Isaac Bashe­vis Singer, Arthur Ran­some, and Astrid Lind­gren. Oth­ers, too—in addi­tion to sev­er­al folk tales retold by the com­pil­ers.

What I loved about these sto­ries when we were read­ing them aloud was that they were from all over the world—many cul­tures and places rep­re­sent­ed. We often were look­ing at the globe after read­ing from these books. Some are tra­di­tion­al sto­ries, some contemporary—an excel­lent mix, real­ly. Short sto­ries for kids—loads bet­ter than the drea­ry ones in grade-spe­cif­ic read­ers.

What my kids loved, curi­ous­ly, was how the illus­tra­tions were tucked into the text. Every page has a clever black and white drawing—something drawn around the story’s title or run­ning along the bot­tom of the page, a char­ac­ter sketch set in the para­graph indent, a crowd scene span­ning the spread between the top and bot­tom para­graphs on both pages, a bor­der of leaves or animals—very detailed, even if small. You don’t see illus­tra­tion place­ment like these much. The books have a unique feel because of them.

unknown-4The illus­tra­tors for each book are dif­fer­ent, but all are won­der­ful, and because every­thing is print­ed sim­ply in black and white and cre­ative­ly spaced on the pages the books look like they go togeth­er. Some of the draw­ings are sweet, cute—some you can imag­ine as fine art. Which is what makes me wish these had been pro­duced in a larg­er hard-back ver­sion with col­or plates, etc.

But the fact is, the paper­back trim size made it easy to slip these in my purse, tuck in the glove com­part­ment, pack for the plane ride, etc. A lot of read­ing hap­pened on the fly dur­ing those ear­ly ele­men­tary years—these books were some of the eas­i­est to car­ry around and pull out at the doctor’s office, the sibling’s game, and the bus stop.

I thought about putting them out in our lit­tle free library in the front yard, but I’ve decid­ed to keep them on my shelf. Maybe tuck one in my purse for when I’m sit­ting out­side the high school wait­ing for my girl, or read­ing out­side the dress­ing room while she tries on clothes. The days are fly­ing by—I’m glad I have books to remem­ber the sweet ear­li­er days, too.

Per­haps I’ll buy anoth­er set to share in the library…..

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Raymie Nightingale

rn200pixDar­ling Daugh­ter and I host/participate in an occa­sion­al par­ent-child book­group for mid­dle-grade read­ers and their par­ents. We call it Books & Bagels and we meet at the bagel shop down the street from church and nosh on bagels while talk­ing about books. I think we can safe­ly say the bagel aspect of things increas­es participation—but all the kids who come are great read­ers and we love talk­ing with them and their par­ents about books. We’ve read many of our favorites again with this group and they’ve intro­duced us to some we’ve missed in the last few years of pub­li­ca­tion. (Dar­ling Daugh­ter is, alas, out­grow­ing the mid­dle-grade genre.)

We saved the read­ing of Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightin­gale for Books & Bagels. I sched­uled it not hav­ing read the book, in fact, which is not usu­al­ly how I do things. But DiCamillo’s books lend them­selves to good dis­cus­sion, I’ve found, so I was sure it would work well for us.

And it did. We talked about the heart­break and the hope, the crazy char­ac­ters and their friend­ships and flaws, and the unlike­ly events that could absolute­ly hap­pen. We talked about how it was sim­i­lar to some of DiCamillo’s oth­er books and how it was dif­fer­ent, too. Good dis­cus­sion all the way around.

I noticed as we talked, how­ev­er, that one of our regulars—I’ll call him Sam—seemed a bit dis­grun­tled about the book. Sam and I have been dis­cussing books for a long time—he reads both wise­ly and wide­ly and we have intro­duced each oth­er to many books over the years. He has just turned ten and he’s hon­est about what he thinks, though always kind. He’s been taught to speak his mind, but nev­er in a way that would hurt some­one else’s feelings—including, say, the author of the book who is not even present.

Sam,” I said, “it looks like you have some­thing you want to say.”

Yeah…well,” said Sam. “It was a great book and all…. Well-writ­ten, of course. And, I mean, the friend­ship of Raymie and those oth­er girls was great, I guess. And the lousy adults were inter­est­ing…. But—” He paused and looked at his Mom out of the cor­ner of his eye.

Go ahead, Sam,” she said. “Tell us what you real­ly think.”

It’s just that…I mean it’s fine…but it’s just…it’s such a girlie book.” He looked both relieved and ashamed at hav­ing con­fessed this. “Not that there’s any­thing wrong with that, of course.”

I asked gen­tle clar­i­fy­ing ques­tions. I’m sort of fas­ci­nat­ed and appalled by the idea of “girl books” and “boy books.” I want to vehe­ment­ly argue that those cat­e­gories don’t exist…or shouldn’t exist…or must not be allowed to exist…or some­thing like that. But before me was a read­er insist­ing that he under­stood this was a great book, but it just had way too much “girl stuff” in it to be inter­est­ing to guys like him.

Like what kind of girl stuff?” one of the girl read­ers asked.

Batons. Bar­rettes. Dress­es.” Sam said. He shrugged apolo­get­i­cal­ly.

Oth­er kids perked up. Right, they said. Lots of girl stuff. No boy stuff what­so­ev­er, in fact.

I was afraid to ask what “boy stuff” they thought was miss­ing. Instead, we talked about whether var­i­ous (tra­di­tion­al­ly under­stood) girl and boy trap­pings were lim­it­ed or lim­it­ing. These kids know how to have good and hon­est con­ver­sa­tions around per­cep­tions and assump­tions and stereo­types. We talked about whether the char­ac­ter of each of the girls was “girl-only.” No, every­one agreed—they knew boys who were painful­ly shy/anxious, or show-offy, or stub­born, just like each of the three ami­gos DiCamil­lo con­jured up. They knew both boys and girls who car­ried heavy loads of expec­ta­tion, or fam­i­ly dis­tress, or who had trou­ble mak­ing friends. They knew them­selves what it was to feel like every­thing, absolute­ly every­thing, depend­ed on them. They could iden­ti­fy with the book—on many lev­els that had noth­ing to do with gen­der. And yet…this was a girlie book—on this they all agreed, as well.

It was a won­der­ful dis­cus­sion, real­ly. Hon­est. Respect­ful. I thanked Sam for being brave enough to say what he thought. He won­dered if Kate DiCamil­lo made Raymie, Bev­er­ly, and Louisiana girls because she was a girl and that’s what she knew best. I said I didn’t know, but I knew that she’d also writ­ten books that fea­tured male char­ac­ters. I told him I’d share my copy of Tiger Ris­ing with him.

As we cleaned up the bagel and cream cheese detri­tus I asked if any­one could sug­gest a book or two for our fall Books & Bagels book­group. Sam eager­ly bounced up and down.

I have two to sug­gest!” he said. “Bridge to Ter­abithia and The BFG.”

Two ter­rif­ic books. Two ter­rif­ic books that hap­pen to have strong girl char­ac­ters. I point­ed this out and Sam said, “But not only girl char­ac­ters. The giant is a boy!”

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Calvin Can’t Fly

Calvin-250When I was doing sto­ry­time week­ly, a book about a book­worm star­ling was in my reg­u­lar rota­tion. Yes, you read that right—a Book­worm Star­ling. That’s exact­ly what Calvin (the star­ling) is—a book­worm. And that is his shame—his cousins call him “nerdie birdie,” “geeky beaky,” and “book­worm.” Unusu­al (gen­tly deroga­to­ry) labels for a star­ling. Not that it deters Calvin—he most­ly shrugs and turns the page.

Calvin is the only star­ling in his very large fam­i­ly who does not seem to care much about fly­ing. (Refresh your mem­o­ry on how star­lings move about with this astound­ing video of star­ling mur­mu­ra­tions.) He’s into books. In a big way. While his cousins learn to fly and chase bee­tles, bugs, and ants, Calvin sits and learns to read let­ters, words, and sen­tences. He dreams of adven­ture sto­ries, infor­ma­tion, and poet­ry. His cousins dream of insect eat­ing and garbage pick­ing. And although they call him by the above names, they most­ly ignore him, so enrap­tured with fly­ing are they.

And Calvin is just as enrap­tured with sto­ries and learn­ing. Pirates and vol­ca­noes, dinos and plan­ets, sci­ence and history—Calvin reads it all. He reads the entire sum­mer, learn­ing and absorb­ing every­thing his lit­tle star­ling brain can.

When the sea­sons begin to turn, the urgency for Calvin to learn to fly becomes appar­ent. And yet, he man­ages not to learn. This cre­ates quite an issue, because the wind has grown cold and it is time to head south….

The entire star­ling fam­i­ly takes off, minus Calvin. They don’t get far before they turn around and come back for Calvin. He is car­ried in the most hilar­i­ous way, which more than excus­es the unkind words pre­vi­ous­ly used about his read­ing habits.

And as it turns out, Calvin’s read­ing saves them—Calvin is the unex­pect­ed hero! “Make haste!” he says, lead­ing the entire star­ling fam­i­ly to safe­ty. Kids love this! They love that his book-knowl­edge of some­thing as obscure as hur­ri­cane safe­ty came in handy. They all but cheer—actually, once a set of twins did cheer when I read how Calvin saved them all. And kids are fur­ther delight­ed when Calvin flaps his wings in hap­pi­ness, jump­ing and hop­ping and dancing…and flies! At last!

When I looked up the author, Jen­nifer Berne, I found out there’s anoth­er Calvin book! I don’t know how I missed it. Ms. Berne and the illus­tra­tor, Kei­th Bendis, have told an empow­er­ing sto­ry, (with­out being preachy!) about the won­ders and neces­si­ty of read­ing. Can’t wait to read Calvin’s next adven­tures. I’m off to find a group of kids to read to….

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Books for My Grandbaby and Me

Reading to my GrandbabyIt’s no secret that I am a big fan of books and read­ing. I am actu­al­ly an even big­ger fan of babies. I am instant­ly smit­ten. I can think of noth­ing bet­ter than cud­dling an infant, blan­ket­ed by that new baby smell, read­ing to an audi­ence of one. You can imag­ine how thrilled I am to announce that there’s a new baby in town! My incred­i­ble daugh­ter-in-law and son are cel­e­brat­ing the joy of tran­si­tion­ing from lov­ing cou­ple to lov­ing fam­i­ly and I am a first-time grand­ma.

A sweet, lit­tle baby boy (well actu­al­ly, not so lit­tle, with a birth weight of 11 lbs. 12 oz. and length of 24”) to bounce on my knee as we cre­ate read­ing mem­o­ries togeth­er! I’ve looked for­ward to shar­ing my pas­sion for lit­er­a­cy with a pre­cious grand­ba­by for a very long time. And so, with my heart full of  more love than I ever thought pos­si­ble, I will set­tle into this esteemed and hon­or­able role as grand­ma by reach­ing for a trea­sured stack of books. Care­ful­ly select­ed books that will begin a life­long adven­ture of dis­cov­ery, won­der, snug­gles, and joy. Books filled with lessons for my grand­ba­by and me!   

Book and Les­son #1: On The Day You Were Born
Books help us cel­e­brate and learn.

On tThe per­fect first book to share with my grand­ba­by offers this sweet greet­ing: “Wel­come to the spin­ning world… We are so glad you’ve come.” Debra Frasier’s love­ly pic­ture book will, with­out a doubt, become a tra­di­tion for us. The mir­a­cle of nature explains the mir­a­cle of a very spe­cial baby’s entrance into the world. Each year on the anniver­sary of his birth, we will mar­vel at the uni­verse as it is depict­ed in page after page of charm­ing nature col­lages. An extra­or­di­nary book to com­mem­o­rate an extra­or­di­nary event in our lives!   

Book and Les­son #2: More! More! More! Said the Baby
Books help us cher­ish mem­o­ries from the past and cre­ate new ones.

More! More! More! Said the BabyLit­tle Guy, Lit­tle Pump­kin and Lit­tle Bird, tod­dlers from More! More! More! Said the Baby, by Vera B. Williams, bring out the silli­ness and play­ful fun that are essen­tial qual­i­ties for grand­mas and grand­pas. After read­ing this delight­ful sto­ry to my grand­son, I will share anoth­er sto­ry, one about his own dad that I will call “Lit­tle Fish.”  Cen­tered on the mem­o­ry of an ener­getic, not quite two- year- old, I’ll rem­i­nisce and recall the gig­gles and squeal­ing “I do gan, I do gan” as my son jumped off the dock into the lake, again and again. You can bet that each time I read this book it will be grand­ma who pleads for “more, more, more” tum­my kiss­es and toe tick­les!

Book and Les­son #3: Snowy Day
Books help us find new friends.

The Snowy DayIntro­duc­ing my grand­son to a curi­ous lit­tle boy named Peter will be the begin­ning of what I hope will be many friend­ships sprout­ing from the pages of a good book. While read­ing Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, we will get to know an adven­tur­er who loves build­ing smil­ing snow­men and mak­ing snow angels. It won’t be long before my grand­son and I enjoy win­ter days doing the same. And though he will be too young to under­stand the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of this book (con­sid­ered to be the first full col­or pic­ture book fea­tur­ing a child of col­or as the main char­ac­ter), it will always be a reminder to me about the impor­tance of pro­vid­ing a pletho­ra of books with diverse char­ac­ters, books that offer “win­dows and mir­rors,” books filled with friends my grand­ba­by has yet to meet.

Book and Les­son #4: Four Pup­pies
Books help us under­stand life and the world around us.

Four PuppiesThis grandma’s “must read to grand­ba­by book­list” would not be com­plete with­out the book that was my very first per­son­al favorite. As a kinder­garten­er, I fell in love with this clas­sic Lit­tle Gold­en Book. My hope is that my grand­son will delight in the antics of this ram­bunc­tious pack of pups as they learn about the chang­ing sea­sons. Even­tu­al­ly my spe­cial read­ing bud­dy and I will talk about the wise red squir­rel and the pos­i­tive life lessons he pass­es on to his young pro­tégés.    

Book and Les­son #5:
The Lit­tle Mouse, the Red Ripe Straw­ber­ry, and the Big Hun­gry Bear
Books help us have a lit­tle fun.

The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry BearThis deli­cious sto­ry by Don and Audrey Wood pro­vides anoth­er walk down mem­o­ry lane. It seems like just yes­ter­day when my three-year old preschool­er begged for anoth­er read­ing of this high­ly inter­ac­tive tale. This time around, I plan to wear a pair of Grou­cho fuzzy nose and glass­es as I read it with my grand­ba­by. The cap­ti­vat­ing tale that mix­es a bit of fear, mys­tery, humor, sneak­i­ness and, best of all, shar­ing with oth­ers, will like­ly find a spot on grandbaby’s “read it again” list!

Book and Les­son #6: The I LOVE YOU Book
Books help us express our feel­ings.

The I Love You BookUncon­di­tion­al love is a nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­non for par­ents and grand­par­ents all over the world. The I Love You Book by Todd Parr describes the pow­er­ful, unwa­ver­ing affec­tion that I will for­ev­er feel for this child who has cap­tured my heart. With bright, col­or­ful illus­tra­tions, the mes­sage is sim­ple: I love you whether sil­ly, sad, scared, or brave. I love you whether sleep­ing or not sleep­ing. I love you and I always will, just the way you are!

Once Upon a Time BabyBooks for my grand­ba­by and me will offer a wide range of lessons on all sorts of top­ics. How­ev­er, the great­est gift they will pro­vide is a chance to share mean­ing­ful moments, a chance to relive fond mem­o­ries, a chance to cre­ate new mem­o­ries. Books for my grand­ba­by and me are a gift that will last a life­time, a lega­cy of lit­er­a­cy and love, for my grand­ba­by and me.

Two of my favorite baby lit­er­a­cy gift sites:

I ordered a per­son­al­ized copy of On the Day You Were Born with my grandbaby’s name print­ed on the cov­er and through­out the book.

Adorable t-shirts for my grand­ba­by, encour­ag­ing lit­er­a­cy and learn­ing

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Cook-A-Doodle-Do!

Cook+A+Doodle+Do-260-pixI’ve got dessert on my mind—berry short­cake, to be pre­cise. I’ve already done the straw­ber­ry short­cake dur­ing straw­ber­ry sea­son. My rasp­ber­ry bush­es are pro­duc­ing at a rate that might call for short­cake in the near future, how­ev­er. And when­ev­er I make shortcake—or even think of it—I think of Cook-a-doo­dle-doo by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crum­mel (who are sis­ters, I believe).

This book was An Extreme Favorite at our house through two kids—one who was already on the old­er end of pic­ture books when it came out. Why the pop­u­lar­i­ty? Quite sim­ply: It’s hilar­i­ous. And sweet (no pun intend­ed). But most­ly hilar­i­ous.

Big Brown Roost­er is in need of a change—no more chick­en feed! No more peck­ing about! He remem­bers that his very famous great-grand­moth­er, The Lit­tle Red Hen, penned a cook­book: The Joy of Cook­ing Alone by L.R. Hen. Once he finds it, he real­izes his great granny cooked far more than loaves of bread. And he is hun­gry for the straw­ber­ry short­cake fea­tured in the mid­dle of the book.

Like his Great-Granny before him, Big Brown Roost­er is sur­round­ed by unhelp­ful friends. Dog, Cat, and Goose each take their pot­shots at Big Brown Roost­er, but he is unde­terred. He ties on his apron, ready to cook all alone, only to find three new friends: Tur­tle, Igua­na, and Pot-bel­lied Pig.

Do you three know any­thing about cook­ing?” Roost­er asked.

I can read recipes!” said Tur­tle.

I can get stuff!” said Igua­na.

I can taste!” said Pig. “I am expert at tast­ing.”

And so the team mem­bers don hats—an apron tied around Big Brown Rooster’s head, a tow­el around Pig’s head, an oven mitt for Igua­na, and a small pot worn base­ball cap-like for tur­tle. The illus­tra­tions are sweet and hys­ter­i­cal at the same time. The mix-ups and mis­un­der­stand­ings are on the lev­el of the Three Stooges crossed with Amelia Bedelia. But detailed side­bars guide a home/kid cook through the cor­rect steps. What the friends lack in expe­ri­ence and skill, they make up for in exu­ber­ance and excitement—so, very much like bak­ing with chil­dren, actu­al­ly.

It’s astound­ing when you see what they go through, but they cre­ate a beau­ti­ful (if slight­ly lean­ing) tow­er of straw­ber­ry short­cake. It’s only when they try to move it to the table to enjoy togeth­er that things…slip away from them. Pot-bel­lied Pig takes his turn—he’s the expert taster, and pos­i­tive­ly unflum­moxed by short­cake being smeared across the floor. In split second—not even a page turn—the straw­ber­ry short­cake is gone.

It is then that the pre­vi­ous­ly ami­able friends start to lose it. Names are called and threats are inti­mat­ed (plump juicy roast pig, igua­na pie, tur­tle soup etc.)

But wise Roost­er takes com­mand. “It doesn’t mat­ter,” he says. “The first short­cake was just for prac­tice.”

And so they make anoth­er. The three friends—Iguana, Pig, and Turtle—volunteer to help again, and it’s quick work the sec­ond time around. The last spread fea­tures a par­ty of friends—includ­ing the nay-say­ing Dog, Cat and Goose!—enjoy­ing straw­ber­ry short­cake. The last page fea­tures Great-Granny’s recipe for Mag­nif­i­cent Straw­ber­ry Short­cake.

I think I’ll make some tonight!

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Bink and Gollie

Ear­ly this morn­ing I read Bink and Gol­lie books to my nieces. We were killing timeBink&Golliebook-180pix while their par­ents picked up the rental car for their Great Amer­i­can Sum­mer Road­trip. To say that the lev­el of excite­ment was pal­pa­ble is an understatement—it was a wave that near­ly knocked me down when they opened their door. They talked—both of them—nonstop for an hour while we sipped our break­fast smooth­ies.

Mom and Dad were not back when we sucked down the final drops of smooth­ie, which was con­cern­ing, so anx­ious were they to get on the road already. I said, “Well, what can we do…that we can put down if your Mom and Dad come back in two minutes…and pick back up after your trip?”

Books!” said one.

YEAHWE CAN READ BOOKS!” said the oth­er.

On the deck!”

In the sun­shine!”

Let’s do it!”

And so we took Bink and Gol­lie with us to the sun­ny deck. No mat­ter how excit­ed these sweet girls get—and let me tell you, they were excit­ed this morning!—they calm down instant­ly with a book. Their breath­ing changes by page two. And so we snug­gled up and read, breath­ing deeply in the ear­ly morn­ing sun­shine.

I’d for­got­ten how much of the sto­ry is told in the pic­tures in Bink and Gol­lie books—and how many words are in the pic­tures. Labels and instruc­tions, signs and notes, jokes and fun. Because both girls are learn­ing to read, this works real­ly well. I read the sto­ry itself and they read the pic­tures. The pic­tures are often filled with big words. (So is the sto­ry itself—it’s some­thing I appre­ci­ate about Kate DiCamillo’s and Ali­son McGhee’s writ­ing. They do not sim­pli­fy vocab­u­lary.) Some things we have to sound out togeth­er, but the real fun is get­ting the inflec­tion right. Read­ing it in our Gol­lie voice, or like a 1940’s radio adver­tise­ment, or like a car­ni­val bark­er.

Bink and Gol­lie are oppo­sites in many ways—Gollie is tall and skin­ny, prag­mat­icBink&Gollie-180-pix and for­mal in her speech. She says things like I long for speed. And Greet­ings. And I beg you not to do that…. My nieces find this amus­ing. They are also tall and skin­ny, prag­mat­ic (some­times, any­way), and hilar­i­ous­ly for­mal in their speech at times.

Bink is short and has hair stick­ing up all over her head. She loves bright socks and pan­cakes and peanut but­ter. No one would call my nieces short. (“We don’t have that prob­lem,” one of them said this morn­ing as we read about Bink order­ing a Stretch-o-mat­ic to make her­self taller.) But their hair is some­times Bink-like. And they delight in the sim­ple things of life—including, but not lim­it­ed to, socks, cel­e­bra­to­ry pan­cakes, and peanut but­ter. They also have Bink’s energy—they yam­mer, they jump, they zip, they climb and glide.

In short, they love both Bink and Gol­lie. They are Bink and Gollie—they can relate, as it were. Bink and Gol­lie have adven­tures, a sweet friend­ship, and they roller­skate everywhere—these details light up my sweet girls. They enjoy decod­ing the words in the pic­tures and get­ting the joke. They are envi­ous of the tree­house in which Bink and Gol­lie live. They’d like to vis­it Eccles’ Empire of Enchantment—and maybe hit a Bar­gain Bonan­za. (Maybe the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dako­ta will sat­is­fy them.)

Bink and Gol­lie got us almost to Mom and Dad’s return. We did have to take a lit­tle field trip to my house (just around the cor­ner) because their cousin was bak­ing scones, but then Mom and Dad were home, the rent­ed Jeep was loaded in record time, and off they went!

I won­der if they’re lev­i­tat­ing with excite­ment in their car seats, chat­ter­ing away like Bink or say­ing I long for the moun­tains…. like Gol­lie. They invit­ed me to sneak in their car and go with them. Maybe I should’ve tak­en them up on it.

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The Book That Saved My Students and Me

by Mau­r­na Rome

gr_burnoutA rough start to a new school year can be unset­tling for rook­ie teach­ers. It can pro­duce feel­ings of self-doubt and immense stress.  Inex­pe­ri­enced edu­ca­tors may ques­tion every­thing from the qual­i­ty of their under­grad teacher train­ing to whether or not edu­ca­tion was a wise career choice. The lack of prepa­ra­tion for man­ag­ing chal­leng­ing behav­iors, deal­ing with an abun­dance of cur­ricu­lum stan­dards, and build­ing enough sta­mi­na to keep up with an exhaust­ing dai­ly pace is enough to make “teacher burn out” more than just a buzz word. 

A rough start to a new school year can be unset­tling for vet­er­an teach­ers, too.  It can pro­duce feel­ings of self-doubt and immense stress. Expe­ri­enced teach­ers may ques­tion every­thing from the qual­i­ty of the many years of exten­sive train­ing (mas­ters pro­gram, edu­ca­tion spe­cial­ist degree, and Nation­al Board Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for yours tru­ly) to whether or not it’s time to say good­bye to a beloved career choice. The years of expe­ri­ence man­ag­ing chal­leng­ing behav­iors, deal­ing with an abun­dance of cur­ricu­lum stan­dards, and build­ing enough sta­mi­na to keep up with an exhaust­ing dai­ly pace are not always enough to make “teacher burn out” just a buzz word.

500px-PostItNotePadA few weeks into the school year, my col­leagues and I were asked to share two things on Post-it® notes: some­thing that caus­es great frus­tra­tion and stress and some­thing that brings a sense of calm and “low breath­ing.” I imme­di­ate­ly thought of more than a dozen things that were weigh­ing heav­i­ly on my heart. How­ev­er, I could hon­est­ly think of just one thing that had the pow­er to set­tle me down and make me feel wor­thy as a teacher. Just one thing that seemed to affirm all the rea­sons I became a teacher. Just one thing I could count on to bring a sense of peace to my class­room. How appro­pri­ate that the one thing that could do so much is a book—a read-aloud book that my stu­dents can’t get enough of. This book could be called “The Book that Saved My Stu­dents and Me.” How fit­ting that this book is actu­al­ly called The War That Saved My Life.  

bk_-The-War-That-Saved-My-LifeWrit­ten by Kim­ber­ly Brubak­er Bradley and set in 1939 Eng­land, the nov­el is a dif­fer­ent type of WWII saga. It is a sto­ry filled with pain and tri­umph. It’s about the impor­tance of oral lan­guage, kind­ness, and belief in one­self. It teach­es lessons of per­se­ver­ance, courage, and com­pas­sion. The War That Saved My Life is com­prised of so many of the same teach­able moments that edu­ca­tors like me strive to cap­ture and make the most of on a reg­u­lar basis.

The sto­ry of Ada was men­tioned in a pre­vi­ous Bookol­o­gy arti­cle about my “sum­mer school kids.” I knew then that this book was one that would stay with me… and it has!  I was con­vinced it would be the per­fect book to share with my stu­dents at the start of the school year… and it is! I hoped my teach­ing part­ners would agree… and they did! Each day 150 4th and 5th graders at my school plead to hear more of this sto­ry. When stu­dents from dif­fer­ent class­rooms dis­cov­ered their teach­ers were all read­ing aloud the same book, they start­ed dis­cussing the sto­ry dur­ing recess. In the mid­dle of a spelling test, when the word “trot­ted” was announced, a stu­dent imme­di­ate­ly con­nect­ed it to Ada and exclaimed “Hey, Ada trot­ted with But­ter.” For the next two weeks we chal­lenged one anoth­er to use spelling words in sen­tences that con­nect­ed to the sto­ry. It was sur­pris­ing­ly easy for stu­dents and it cer­tain­ly jazzed up our typ­i­cal rou­tine for study­ing words.

A final tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of this book came when I told my stu­dents I would be at meet­ings for sev­er­al days in a row and I need­ed their help with an impor­tant ques­tion: “Should I ask the guest teacher to con­tin­ue read­ing aloud Ada’s sto­ry or should we put it on hold for a short while?” My 4th graders respond­ed with “We can’t wait that long to hear more! Let the sub read it!” Clear­ly, they love this book! The same ques­tion was also posed to my 5th graders. Their response was dif­fer­ent but tick­led me just as much as the first one did: “No one can read the sto­ry like you, Mrs. Rome. We want to wait for you to come back and read it to us.”

In the world of edu­ca­tion where teacher burnout is a very real thing for the young and old alike, there is one thing that has with­stood the test of time and is proven to cul­ti­vate com­mu­ni­ty, cre­ate calm, and con­tribute to the cur­ricu­lum: one good book. The War That Saved My Life is the book that saved my stu­dents and me!

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Laughter and Grief

by Vic­ki Palmquist

Dragons in the WatersThere are books we remem­ber all of our lives, even if we can’t remem­ber the details. Some­times we can’t even remem­ber the sto­ry, but we remem­ber the char­ac­ters and how they made us feel. We recall being trans­port­ed into the pages of the book, see­ing what the char­ac­ters see, hear­ing what they hear, and under­stand­ing the time and spaces and breath­ing in and out of the char­ac­ters. Do we become those char­ac­ters, at least for a lit­tle while, at least until we move on to the next book? Is this why we can remem­ber them long after we’ve fin­ished the book?

This col­umn is called Read­ing Ahead because I’m one of those peo­ple oth­ers revile: I read the end of the book before I’ve pro­gressed to that point in the sto­ry. I read straight through for as long as I can stand it and then I have to know how the sto­ry ends. I tell myself that I do this because then I can observe the writ­ing and how the author weaves the end­ing into the book long before the last pages. That’s par­tial­ly true. But I also admit that the ten­sion becomes unbear­able for me.

When I find a book that is so deli­cious that I don’t want to know the end until its prop­er time, then I know that I am read­ing a book whose char­ac­ters will live on in me. Their cells move from the pages of the book into my arms and shoul­ders, head­ing straight to my mind and my heart.

The Wednesday WarsFor me, those books are The Rid­dle­mas­ter of Hed by Patri­cia McKil­lip, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (but not The Hob­bit), The Wiz­ard of Earth­sea by Ursu­la K. LeGuin, The Dark is Ris­ing by Susan Coop­er, Drag­ons in the Waters and Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle, and every one of the Deep Val­ley books writ­ten by Maud Hart Lovelace. 

There are some new­er books that haven’t yet been test­ed by time. I could feel that I was absorb­ing The Wednes­day Wars by Gary D. Schmidt and Catch You Lat­er, Trai­tor by Avi and Absolute­ly, Tru­ly by Heather Vogel Fred­er­ick.  There are many, many oth­er books that I admire and enjoy read­ing but I don’t feel them becom­ing a part of me in quite the same way.

I sus­pect that you have a short list of books that make you feel like this. They are an unfor­get­table part of you.

Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken HeartI’ve just fin­ished read­ing Isabelle Day Refus­es to Die of a Bro­ken Heart by Jane St. Antho­ny (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press). It is a fun­ny and absorb­ing book about learn­ing to deal with grief. That’s a place I’ve lived for the last four years in a way I hadn’t expe­ri­enced before. When my moth­er died, my all-my-life friend, an essen­tial part of me was trans­formed into some­thing else. I don’t yet know what that is.

Isabelle Day is learn­ing about this, too. Her father, her pal, her fun­ny man, her let-me-show-you-the-delights-of-life-kid par­ent has died short­ly before the book begins. Her moth­er is in the throes of grief, pulled inward, not com­mu­ni­cat­ing well. Isabelle and her moth­er have moved from Mil­wau­kee, where close friends and a famil­iar house stand strong, to Min­neapo­lis, where Isabelle’s mom grew up. They are liv­ing upstairs in a duplex owned by two elder­ly sis­ters who imme­di­ate­ly share friend­ship and food and wis­dom with Isabelle, some­thing she’s feel­ing too prick­ly to accept. There are new friends whom Isabelle doesn’t trust to be true.

But for any­one who has expe­ri­enced grief, this book will reach out and touch you gen­tly, soft­ly, let­ting you know that oth­ers under­stand what you are feel­ing. Isabelle comes to under­stand that she doesn’t have to feel alone … the world is wait­ing to be expe­ri­enced in oth­er, new ways.

It’s a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten book in that the words fit togeth­er in love­ly, some­times sur­pris­ing, some­times star­tling ways. There is great care tak­en with the sto­ry and the char­ac­ters. And yet the unex­pect­ed is always around the cor­ner. Isabelle is a com­plex per­son. She does not act pre­dictably. There is no sense of “woe is me” in this book. There’s a whole class of what I call “whiny books” (most­ly adult) and this isn’t one of them. This book is filled with life, won­der, humor, and most­ly under­stand­ing.

Isabelle and Grace and Mar­garet, Miss Flo­ra and Miss Dora, they are all a part of me now. When I am feel­ing sad and miss­ing the peo­ple I have lost, I will re-read this book because I know it will pro­vide heal­ing. And I can laugh … it’s been hard to do that. Thank you, Jane.

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Ready for the World with Powerful Literacy Practices

by Mau­r­na Rome

I believe whole-heart­ed­ly in the impor­tance of read­ing aloud dai­ly to my stu­dents. On days I fail to meet this goal, I go home feel­ing like I’ve let the kids down. I recall the fren­zy of Valentine’s Day with the excite­ment of school-wide bin­go, spe­cial class projects and more than enough candy—but no time spent read­ing aloud. I doubt that the kids left my class think­ing that some­thing was miss­ing that day and I am sure no one report­ed to their par­ents that their teacher real­ly blew it by not read­ing to them. Yet it both­ered me great­ly. It wasn’t the first and won’t be the last day I fall short. How­ev­er, I am ded­i­cat­ed to mak­ing read­ing aloud a pri­or­i­ty in my class­room. I encour­age every teacher to join me in mak­ing it a goal that stu­dents will not miss out on this essen­tial ingre­di­ent from our arse­nal of lit­er­a­cy best prac­tices.

cover imageMore than 30 years ago, Jim Tre­lease wrote a lit­tle book that would become a nation­al best sell­er, with more than a mil­lion copies sold. The 7th edi­tion of The Read Aloud Hand­book was released in 2013. It high­lights present-day lit­er­a­cy chal­lenges as well as those that have remained the same since 1982. I high­ly rec­om­mend this gem, along with sev­er­al oth­er “pro­fes­sion­al books” on this top­ic by experts I great­ly admire: Unwrap­ping the Read Aloud by Lester Lam­i­nack; Ignit­ing a Pas­sion for Read­ing by Steven Layne, and Read­ing Mag­ic: Why Read­ing Aloud to Our Chil­dren Will Change Their Lives For­ev­er by Mem Fox.
I can guar­an­tee that none of the 9 year olds in my class­room have read any of the texts men­tioned above. Chances are that they are also not aware of the recent report issued by Scholas­tic assert­ing that we can pre­dict which kids will become our best read­ers based on how often they have ben­e­fit­ted from being read to.

How­ev­er, when I recent­ly chal­lenged my stu­dents to write a let­ter to teach­ers every­where about the impor­tance of read­ing out loud to kids, they seem to have hit the nail on the head. Here is a sam­pling of their wis­dom and insight:

  • I think it’s a good idea because every stu­dent will be won­der­ing every time you read.
  • Your stu­dents might learn new words that they don’t know.
  • It’s a good idea to read chap­ter books to your stu­dents because they can see pic­tures in their minds.
  • Chap­ter books are full of adven­tures.
  • They can relate with some­thing they did or some­thing one of their fam­i­ly mem­bers did.
  • They can be bet­ter writ­ers.
  • If it’s a fun­ny chap­ter book, you will get a laugh out of it.
  • It gives kids ideas and more imag­i­na­tion. It might make kids want to read even more.

Lam­i­nack has iden­ti­fied six types of read alouds that offer teach­ers a sure fire way to accom­plish the fol­low­ing: sup­port stan­dards, mod­el the process of writ­ing, build vocab­u­lary, encour­age chil­dren to read inde­pen­dent­ly, demon­strate flu­ent read­ing and pro­mote com­mu­ni­ty. As I reflect on the respons­es from my stu­dents, I see that all six pur­pos­es are men­tioned. I am con­vinced that the very best books for read­ing aloud are able to incor­po­rate all of the above. What a pow­er­ful approach to mak­ing an impact on lit­er­a­cy achieve­ment!

cover imageLast week we fin­ished the unfor­get­table 2013 New­bery Award win­ner, The One and Only Ivan, by Kather­ine Apple­gate. Here is a peek at how this touch­ing sto­ry played out in Room 132.

Sup­port­ing the stan­dards: See the fol­low­ing exam­ples and nota­tions.

Mod­el­ing the process of writ­ing: Using the six “sign posts” from Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Prob­st, we are always on the look­out for tech­niques the writer uses to tell the sto­ry. While read­ing Ivan, we have dis­cov­ered that “tough ques­tions”, “again and again”, and “words of the wis­er” are woven through­out the sto­ry. Kids are now begin­ning to work these same ele­ments into their own sto­ries!
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.3.3.B Use dia­logue and descrip­tions of actions, thoughts, and feel­ings to devel­op expe­ri­ences and events or show the response of char­ac­ters to sit­u­a­tions.

Build­ing vocab­u­lary: Dur­ing each read aloud ses­sion, a stu­dent serves as the “word recorder”. Stu­dents are encour­aged to lis­ten care­ful­ly and hold up their thumb any­time they notice a spe­cial or fan­cy word in the text. We talk about those words and the word recorder makes a list of all the words we dis­cuss. Once we had over 30 words, each stu­dent select­ed one word, paint­ed it on poster sized paper (as Ivan would have done) and then drew a pic­ture to show the def­i­n­i­tion.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.4 Deter­mine the mean­ing of words and phras­es as they are used in a text, dis­tin­guish­ing lit­er­al from non­lit­er­al lan­guage.

ph_IvanFigures

Ivan char­ac­ters in the class­room

Encour­ag­ing stu­dents to read inde­pen­dent­ly: As with all of the books I read out loud in the class­room, stu­dents are eager to check out that very same title from the library. Those that are lucky enough to get their hands on the book bask in the light of know­ing what is yet to come in the sto­ry. They keep the promise of not spoil­ing things for their peers, as they are clear­ly moti­vat­ed to read ahead on their own.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.10 By the end of the year, read and com­pre­hend lit­er­a­ture, includ­ing sto­ries, dra­mas, and poet­ry, at the high end of the grades 2–3 text com­plex­i­ty band inde­pen­dent­ly and pro­fi­cient­ly.

Demon­strat­ing flu­ent read­ing: To show my stu­dents what smooth oral read­ing sounds like, I empha­size the voice of each char­ac­ter. While read­ing The One and Only Ivan, Ruby is rep­re­sent­ed with a 5 year-old lit­tle girl voice, Ivan has a deep voice and Bob takes on a more sar­cas­tic tone.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.3.4 Read with suf­fi­cient accu­ra­cy and flu­en­cy to sup­port com­pre­hen­sion.

ph_IvanLunch

Lit lunch cel­e­bra­tion of Ivan

Pro­mot­ing Com­mu­ni­ty: The well devel­oped char­ac­ters from our read aloud sto­ries become new friends to us. We talk and think about them as if they are actu­al mem­bers of our class­room, with lines such as “What would Ivan do?” or “Remem­ber when Ivan …” One rainy day dur­ing inside recess, the kids play­ing with our plas­tic ani­mal col­lec­tion proud­ly set up a dis­play of “Ivan” char­ac­ters; Stel­la and Ruby the ele­phants, Bob the dog, Ivan and his sis­ter, Not-Tag, the goril­las, were all arranged to reen­act a scene from the book. It struck me that my stu­dents real­ly are mind­ful of the char­ac­ters we grow to love and admire. I stopped every­thing to draw atten­tion to this sweet ges­ture and once again, my heart flut­tered all because of a great book. This lit­tle pre­tend group of friends remained intact until we fin­ished the book and cel­e­brat­ed with a “Lit Lunch” fea­tur­ing yogurt cov­ered raisins and bananas!

Yes, an effec­tive read aloud can pack a lot of lit­er­a­cy into a short amount of time, yet I know it is often one of the first things that goes when the sched­ule gets too full. If you need more con­vinc­ing to keep the read aloud front and cen­ter, con­sid­er what this young lady has to say…

Dear Teach­ers of Every Grade,
You should read to your stu­dents because they will be bet­ter read­ers and writ­ers and learn faster and they will be ready for the world!
Love,
Ash­ley

Look­ing for resources to help you plan for suc­cess­ful read alouds in your class­room?
Find­ing the best of the best books to read aloud:

Book­storms on Bookol­o­gy
Teacher’s Choice from ILA
Children’s Choice from ILA
Nerdy Book Club Awards 

 

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We Didn’t Always Know the Way

by Vic­ki Palmquist

How to Read a StoryA step-by-step, slight­ly tongue-in-cheek but most­ly sin­cere, guide to read­ing a book, How to Read a Sto­ry by Kate Mess­ner, illus­trat­ed by Mark Siegel (Chron­i­cle Books), will have you and your young read­ers feel­ing all warm and cozy and smart.

With advice in Step 2 to Find a Read­ing Bud­dy, we are cau­tioned “And make sure you both like the book.” That makes per­fect sense. Read­ing bud­dies, as drawn in a col­or­ful palette by illus­tra­tor and car­toon­ist Mark Siegel, can be old­er, younger, “or maybe not a per­son at all.” Per­haps a blue dog will wish to read with you.

In Step 6, the sug­ges­tion is to read the dia­logue by say­ing it “in a voice to match who’s talk­ing.” The ink-and-water­col­or illus­tra­tions take up the nar­ra­tive, giv­ing us irre­sistible words with which to prac­tice, a lion, a mouse who says “I am the most POWERFUL in all the land!” and a robot who mere­ly says “Beep.” It’s excel­lent prac­tice for inter­pret­ing pic­tures and putting mean­ing into the words.

We’re invit­ed to try our minds at pre­dic­tion in Step 8, as our read­er and his read­ing bud­dy, the blue dog, con­tem­plate what will hap­pen next.

It’s a book that will make you smile, a good match between well-cho­sen words and play­ful illus­tra­tions, yet it’s a use­ful book for home and school and sto­ry hour. How can chil­dren learn the way to read out loud? How to Read a Sto­ry will have them try­ing before you know it.

 

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The Magic Valentine's Potato

Big Bob and The Magic Valentine’s Day Potato

Sev­er­al years ago, a mys­te­ri­ous pack­age arrived at our house on Valentine’s Day: a plain brown box addressed to our entire fam­i­ly with a return address “TMVDP.” The pack­age weighed almost noth­ing. It weighed almost noth­ing because the box con­tained four lunch­box serv­ing-size bags of pota­to chips. Noth­ing else. Or at least I thought there […]

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Quiltmaker's Gift

The Quest for the Perfect Thanksgiving Book

Each Novem­ber I begin the search anew. I know what I’m look­ing for, and I real­ly don’t think it’s too much to ask of a pic­ture book: It must delve into the themes of gen­eros­i­ty, abun­dance, grat­i­tude. It should be beau­ti­ful. Com­pelling in its beau­ty, in fact. Ide­al­ly, I’d like it to cel­e­brate our bet­ter […]

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Too Many Pumpkins

Too Many Pumpkins

I have a thing for pumpkins—their orange­ness, their round­ness.… I’m not sure what it is, exact­ly. They’re sort of a har­bin­ger of autumn, my favorite sea­son, so maybe that’s it. Real­ly, I just find them sat­is­fy­ing some­how. Giv­en my love of the orange autum­nal globes, it’s a lit­tle odd, per­haps, that my favorite pump­kin book is […]

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Read to Them

Three Things This Past Week

The begin­ning of the school year caught up with every­one last week, I think. My kids are exhaust­ed, a lit­tle over­whelmed, a lit­tle crispy around the edges. The oth­er kids in and around my life seem about the same. Fall tran­si­tions can be hard even when they go rel­a­tive­ly smooth­ly. My youngest (age twelve) came […]

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